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Widdowson, Elsie

diet composition research mccance

(1906–2000) British nutritionist: made scientific studies of human diet and nutrition, and with Robert McCance ensured that the austere British Second World War civilian diet was the healthiest diet the population had ever had.

After a first degree in chemistry at Imperial College, London, in the mid-1920s, Elsie Widdowson remained there for a doctoral thesis on the chemical changes in ripening and stored fruit. A meeting with Robert McCance (d. 1993) at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where he was studying the loss of nutrients in food during cooking, led to a scientific partnership that lasted 60 years, looking at the composition of human foods. McCance became a Reader in medicine at Cambridge in 1938 and Widdowson joined him in studying the absorption and excretion of iron, copper and zinc in the body and the chemical composition of foodstuffs in the British diet. With the onset of war and a meagre diet (only potatoes, carrots and cabbage being plentiful), they devised a basic diet which would provide the necessary nutrients for survival. Using themselves as guinea-pigs and testing their fitness by fell-walking in the Lake District, their work led to important changes in the national diet. They caused the statutory inclusion of calcium in bread (still in force), and the use of dried eggs. The results of their studies were published in The Chemical Composition of Foods (1940), a dietician’s bible which was updated in constant re-editions. Her later research included studying changes in body composition during child development, and malnutrition in Germany (she showed that white bread was as nutritious as any other). In 1968 she moved to the Medical Research Council’s Dunn Nutrition Laboratory in Cambridge as head of infant nutrition research. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1976.

Wieland, Heinrich Otto [next] [back] Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

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